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کتاب: جرم متولد شده / فصل 6

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CHAMELEON

One afternoon I was playing with my cousins. I was a doctor and they were my patients. I was operating on my cousin Bulelwa’s ear with a set of matches when I accidentally perforated her eardrum. All hell broke loose. My grandmother came running in from the kitchen. “Kwenzeka ntoni?!” “What’s happening?!” There was blood coming out of my cousin’s head. We were all crying. My grandmother patched up Bulelwa’s ear and made sure to stop the bleeding. But we kept crying. Because clearly we’d done something we were not supposed to do, and we knew we were going to be punished. My grandmother finished up with Bulelwa’s ear and whipped out a belt and she beat the shit out of Bulelwa. Then she beat the shit out of Mlungisi, too. She didn’t touch me.

Later that night my mother came home from work. She found my cousin with a bandage over her ear and my gran crying at the kitchen table.

“What’s going on?” my mom said.

“Oh, Nombuyiselo,” she said. “Trevor is so naughty. He’s the naughtiest child I’ve ever come across in my life.”

“Then you should hit him.”

“I can’t hit him.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know how to hit a white child,” she said. “A black child, I understand. A black child, you hit them and they stay black. Trevor, when you hit him he turns blue and green and yellow and red. I’ve never seen those colors before. I’m scared I’m going to break him. I don’t want to kill a white person. I’m so afraid. I’m not going to touch him.” And she never did.

My grandmother treated me like I was white. My grandfather did, too, only he was even more extreme. He called me “Mastah.” In the car, he insisted on driving me as if he were my chauffeur. “Mastah must always sit in the backseat.” I never challenged him on it. What was I going to say? “I believe your perception of race is flawed, Grandfather.” No. I was five. I sat in the back.

There were so many perks to being “white” in a black family, I can’t even front. I was having a great time. My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Misbehavior that my cousins would have been punished for, I was given a warning and let off. And I was way naughtier than either of my cousins. It wasn’t even close. If something got broken or if someone was stealing granny’s cookies, it was me. I was trouble.

My mom was the only force I truly feared. She believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But everyone else said, “No, he’s different,” and they gave me a pass. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten, too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better? Being beaten didn’t make me feel better. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies. I went with the cookies.

At that point I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. I thought of it as having to do with Trevor. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.” Trevor can’t go outside. Trevor can’t walk without supervision. It’s because I’m me; that’s why this is happening. I had no other points of reference. There were no other mixed kids around so that I could say, “Oh, this happens to us.” Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. “The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.” Whenever the kids in the street saw me they’d yell, “Indoda yomlungu!” “The white man!” Some of them would run away. Others would call out to their parents to come look. Others would run up and try to touch me to see if I was real. It was pandemonium. What I didn’t understand at the time was that the other kids genuinely had no clue what a white person was. Black kids in the township didn’t leave the township. Few people had televisions. They’d seen the white police roll through, but they’d never dealt with a white person face-to-face, ever.

I’d go to funerals and I’d walk in and the bereaved would look up and see me and they’d stop crying. They’d start whispering. Then they’d wave and say, “Oh!” like they were more shocked by me walking in than by the death of their loved ones. I think people felt like the dead person was more important because a white person had come to the funeral.

After a funeral, the mourners all go to the house of the surviving family to eat. A hundred people might show up, and you’ve got to feed them. Usually you get a cow and slaughter it and your neighbors come over and help you cook. Neighbors and acquaintances eat outside in the yard and in the street, and the family eats indoors. Every funeral I ever went to, I ate indoors. It didn’t matter if we knew the deceased or not. The family would see me and invite me in. “Awunakuvumela umntana womlungu ame ngaphandle. Yiza naye apha ngaphakathi,” they’d say. “You can’t let the white child stand outside. Bring him in here.” As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had anything to do with “race.” I didn’t know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me “white,” even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn’t learned them properly. “Ah, yes, my friend. You’ve confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. You’re not the first.” I soon learned that the quickest way to bridge the race gap was through language. Soweto was a melting pot: families from different tribes and homelands. Most kids in the township spoke only their home language, but I learned several languages because I grew up in a house where there was no option but to learn them. My mom made sure English was the first language I spoke. If you’re black in South Africa, speaking English is the one thing that can give you a leg up. English is the language of money. English comprehension is equated with intelligence. If you’re looking for a job, English is the difference between getting the job or staying unemployed. If you’re standing in the dock, English is the difference between getting off with a fine or going to prison.

After English, Xhosa was what we spoke around the house. When my mother was angry she’d fall back on her home language. As a naughty child, I was well versed in Xhosa threats. They were the first phrases I picked up, mostly for my own safety—phrases like “Ndiza kubetha entloko.” “I’ll knock you upside the head.” Or “Sidenge ndini somntwana.” “You idiot of a child.” It’s a very passionate language. Outside of that, my mother picked up different languages here and there. She learned Zulu because it’s similar to Xhosa. She spoke German because of my father. She spoke Afrikaans because it is useful to know the language of your oppressor. Sotho she learned in the streets.

Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world. We were in a shop once, and the shopkeeper, right in front of us, turned to his security guard and said, in Afrikaans, “Volg daai swartes, netnou steel hulle iets.” “Follow those blacks in case they steal something.” My mother turned around and said, in beautiful, fluent Afrikaans, “Hoekom volg jy nie daai swartes sodat jy hulle kan help kry waarna hulle soek nie?” “Why don’t you follow these blacks so you can help them find what they’re looking for?”

“Ag, jammer!” he said, apologizing in Afrikaans. Then—and this was the funny thing—he didn’t apologize for being racist; he merely apologized for aiming his racism at us. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought you were like the other blacks. You know how they love to steal.” I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.” It became a tool that served me my whole life. One day as a young man I was walking down the street, and a group of Zulu guys was walking behind me, closing in on me, and I could hear them talking to one another about how they were going to mug me. “Asibambe le autie yomlungu. Phuma ngapha mina ngizoqhamuka ngemuva kwakhe.” “Let’s get this white guy. You go to his left, and I’ll come up behind him.” I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t run, so I just spun around real quick and said, “Kodwa bafwethu yingani singavele sibambe umuntu inkunzi? Asenzeni. Mina ngikulindele.” “Yo, guys, why don’t we just mug someone together? I’m ready. Let’s do it.” They looked shocked for a moment, and then they started laughing. “Oh, sorry, dude. We thought you were something else. We weren’t trying to take anything from you. We were trying to steal from white people. Have a good day, man.” They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

As apartheid was coming to an end, South Africa’s elite private schools started accepting children of all colors. My mother’s company offered bursaries, scholarships, for underprivileged families, and she managed to get me into Maryvale College, an expensive private Catholic school. Classes taught by nuns. Mass on Fridays. The whole bit. I started preschool there when I was three, primary school when I was five.

In my class we had all kinds of kids. Black kids, white kids, Indian kids, colored kids. Most of the white kids were pretty well off. Every child of color pretty much wasn’t. But because of scholarships we all sat at the same table. We wore the same maroon blazers, the same gray slacks and skirts. We had the same books. We had the same teachers. There was no racial separation. Every clique was racially mixed.

Kids still got teased and bullied, but it was over usual kid stuff: being fat or being skinny, being tall or being short, being smart or being dumb. I don’t remember anybody being teased about their race. I didn’t learn to put limits on what I was supposed to like or not like. I had a wide berth to explore myself. I had crushes on white girls. I had crushes on black girls. Nobody asked me what I was. I was Trevor.

It was a wonderful experience to have, but the downside was that it sheltered me from reality. Maryvale was an oasis that kept me from the truth, a comfortable place where I could avoid making a tough decision. But the real world doesn’t go away. Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And at some point, you have to choose. Black or white. Pick a side. You can try to hide from it. You can say, “Oh, I don’t pick sides,” but at some point life will force you to pick a side.

At the end of grade six I left Maryvale to go to H. A. Jack Primary, a government school. I had to take an aptitude test before I started, and, based on the results of the test, the school counselor told me, “You’re going to be in the smart classes, the A classes.” I showed up for the first day of school and went to my classroom. Of the thirty or so kids in my class, almost all of them were white. There was one Indian kid, maybe one or two black kids, and me.

Then recess came. We went out on the playground, and black kids were everywhere. It was an ocean of black, like someone had opened a tap and all the black had come pouring out. I was like, Where were they all hiding? The white kids I’d met that morning, they went in one direction, the black kids went in another direction, and I was left standing in the middle, totally confused. Were we going to meet up later on? I did not understand what was happening.

I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you don’t see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didn’t separate herself from anyone. She didn’t care. She’d go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids I’d met that morning. Ten minutes earlier I’d thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else.

I stood there awkwardly by myself in this no-man’s-land in the middle of the playground. Luckily, I was rescued by the Indian kid from my class, a guy named Theesan Pillay. Theesan was one of the few Indian kids in school, so he’d noticed me, another obvious outsider, right away. He ran over to introduce himself. “Hello, fellow anomaly! You’re in my class. Who are you? What’s your story?” We started talking and hit it off. He took me under his wing, the Artful Dodger to my bewildered Oliver.

Through our conversation it came up that I spoke several African languages, and Theesan thought a colored kid speaking black languages was the most amazing trick. He brought me over to a group of black kids. “Say something,” he told them, “and he’ll show you he understands you.” One kid said something in Zulu, and I replied to him in Zulu. Everyone cheered. Another kid said something in Xhosa, and I replied to him in Xhosa. Everyone cheered. For the rest of recess Theesan took me around to different black kids on the playground. “Show them your trick. Do your language thing.” The black kids were fascinated. In South Africa back then, it wasn’t common to find a white person or a colored person who spoke African languages; during apartheid white people were always taught that those languages were beneath them. So the fact that I did speak African languages immediately endeared me to the black kids.

“How come you speak our languages?” they asked.

“Because I’m black,” I said, “like you.”

“You’re not black.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not. Have you not seen yourself?”

They were confused at first. Because of my color, they thought I was a colored person, but speaking the same languages meant that I belonged to their tribe. It just took them a moment to figure it out. It took me a moment, too.

At some point I turned to one of them and said, “Hey, how come I don’t see you guys in any of my classes?” It turned out they were in the B classes, which also happened to be the black classes. That same afternoon, I went back to the A classes, and by the end of the day I realized that they weren’t for me. Suddenly, I knew who my people were, and I wanted to be with them. I went to see the school counselor.

“I’d like to switch over,” I told her. “I’d like to go to the B classes.”

She was confused. “Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t think you want to do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because those kids are…you know.”

“No, I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“Look,” she said, “you’re a smart kid. You don’t want to be in that class.”

“But aren’t the classes the same? English is English. Math is math.”

“Yeah, but that class is…those kids are gonna hold you back. You want to be in the smart class.”

“But surely there must be some smart kids in the B class.”

“No, there aren’t.”

“But all my friends are there.”

“You don’t want to be friends with those kids.”

“Yes, I do.”

We went back and forth. Finally she gave me a stern warning.

“You do realize the effect this will have on your future? You do understand what you’re giving up? This will impact the opportunities you’ll have open to you for the rest of your life.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

I moved to the B classes with the black kids. I decided I’d rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didn’t know.

Being at H. A. Jack made me realize I was black. Before that recess I’d never had to choose, but when I was forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. Because I had a white father, because I’d been in white Sunday school, I got along with the white kids, but I didn’t belong with the white kids. I wasn’t a part of their tribe. But the black kids embraced me. “Come along,” they said. “You’re rolling with us.” With the black kids, I wasn’t constantly trying to be. With the black kids, I just was.

Before apartheid, any black South African who received a formal education was likely taught by European missionaries, foreign enthusiasts eager to Christianize and Westernize the natives. In the mission schools, black people learned English, European literature, medicine, the law. It’s no coincidence that nearly every major black leader of the anti-apartheid movement, from Nelson Mandela to Steve Biko, was educated by the missionaries—a knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom.

The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind. Under apartheid, the government built what became known as Bantu schools. Bantu schools taught no science, no history, no civics. They taught metrics and agriculture: how to count potatoes, how to pave roads, chop wood, till the soil. “It does not serve the Bantu to learn history and science because he is primitive,” the government said. “This will only mislead him, showing him pastures in which he is not allowed to graze.” To their credit, they were simply being honest. Why educate a slave? Why teach someone Latin when his only purpose is to dig holes in the ground?

Mission schools were told to conform to the new curriculum or shut down. Most of them shut down, and black children were forced into crowded classrooms in dilapidated schools, often with teachers who were barely literate themselves. Our parents and grandparents were taught with little singsong lessons, the way you’d teach a preschooler shapes and colors. My grandfather used to sing the songs and laugh about how silly they were. Two times two is four. Three times two is six. La la la la la. We’re talking about fully grown teenagers being taught this way, for generations.

What happened with education in South Africa, with the mission schools and the Bantu schools, offers a neat comparison of the two groups of whites who oppressed us, the British and the Afrikaners. The difference between British racism and Afrikaner racism was that at least the British gave the natives something to aspire to. If they could learn to speak correct English and dress in proper clothes, if they could Anglicize and civilize themselves, one day they might be welcome in society. The Afrikaners never gave us that option. British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”

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